2013 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Driving Impressions

A host of electronic systems present themselves once you're underway. The Active Blind Spot Assist system lights up a triangle in the side mirrors whenever a vehicle enters the blind spot. The lane-departure warning system vibrates the steering wheel when you cross or creep toward the lane marker before activating the turn signal. The optional Night View Assist PLUS screen image is large, crisp and clear, and so bright and detailed at night that it can distract the driver from the task at hand.

Still, most of these systems are less intrusive than those in many E-Class competitors. Most functions and features can be adjusted with the point-and-click dial on the center console, or with more conventional, separate switches on the dash, whichever the driver finds easier or less distracting while driving.

In terms of driving character, the E-Class is amazingly solid, quiet, and powerful. It is fairly agile, too, but it trails most of its competitors in this regard. The Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, and Lexus GS are all more agile and fun to drive.

We particularly like the diesel-powered E350 BlueTEC sedan. Mercedes's V6 turbodiesel is the smoothest, quietest diesel engine available, so virtually all the smoky, clattering drawbacks of more traditional diesel power are gone (though the oily diesel smell during fill-ups remains). Performance is quite close to that of the 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine, and the diesel engine gets better fuel economy than it and nearly every other car in this class. That's good for the pocketbook and the environment. The BlueTEC 3.0-liter V6 turbodiesel engine is rated at 210 horsepower and a more impressive 400 pound-feet of torque. Zero to 60 mph arrives in 6.7 seconds, according to Mercedes, but testing by Edmunds.com added a second to that figure. Still, passing power at highway speeds is quite willing and the engine is impressively smooth and quiet. Drivers coming out of gasoline-powered cars will find it odd that the diesel doesn't rev much past 4500 rpm, but they will be pleased that it makes a lot of torque at low rpm.

As for the E-Class gasoline engines, both the more economical 302-horsepower V6 and the more powerful 402-horsepower V8 are smooth and powerful. Better still, the 7-speed automatic transmission frequently chooses the perfect gear for the prevailing driving circumstances, and both up or down shifts come quickly. Or the driver can choose the desired gear with the steering-wheel-mounted paddles, and the transmission will stay in that gear right up to the engine's redline without upshifting automatically. It's responsive for everyday driving, but not as lightning quick as the dual-clutch automated manuals out there, including the one in the E63 AMG.

Acceleration performance is impressive, regardless of the model, and none of the E-Class variants is light. Packed with all the technology, all the luxury touches and all those airbags, an E350 sedan weighs in at 3,825 pounds and the E550 4MATIC at 4,145 pounds. Given these figures, the spry acceleration seems even more remarkable.

2013 E350 models are powered by 3.5-liter, 60 degree V6, which was new for 2012, when it replaced the 90 degree V6 Mercedes had used previously. The 60 degree cylinder-bank angle maximizes smoothness in a V6, whereas 90 degree V6s tend to shake a bit. The new engine also replaced port fuel injection with direct injection. Output increased from 268 to 302 horsepower, and from 258 to 273 pound-feet of torque. The current V6 is a bit gruffer than the diesel, but it is quieter in the E-Class than in other models, most notably the SLK and C-Class. It offers plenty of punch down low and has good passing response as well. If it weren't for more being better, the V6 would be plenty for everyone. The E350 will sprint from 0 to 60 mph in about 6.5 seconds, which is about the same as the last engine, though it feels a bit stronger.

E550 models use a 4.6-liter twin-turbocharged V8 that generates 402 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque. It was also new for 2012, replacing an engine that produced 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet. Also outfitted with direct injection, the V8 shows no signs of turbo lag, and is tuned to emit more of a rumble than the V6. It has more power everywhere, getting the car moving from a stop quicker and making passing a breeze. The E550 V8 rockets to 60 mph in just 5.2 seconds.

Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 20/30 miles per gallon City/Highway for the E350 sedan. The E350 coupe rates 20/28 mpg, and the Cabriolet 19/28. The E350 4MATIC coupe gets 19/27, and the E350 4MATIC sedan rates 19/29 mpg. The E350 4MATIC wagon gets 19/27 mpg. The E350 BlueTEC is rated 21/32 mpg. The E550 4MATIC sedan 16/26 mpg, the E550 cabriolet is rated 16/25 mpg. The E63 AMG sedan is rated 16/24 mpg and the E63 AMG wagon is rated 15/23 mpg.

New for 2013 is the E400 Hybrid, which couples the E350's direct-injection gasoline V6 to a 120-volt, 20kW three-phase electric motor. The electric motor produces a modest 27 horsepower but a significant 184 pound-feet of torque. As with all electrics, that torque peaks at zero rpm, falling off gradually from there, but given the gas engine's 273 pound-feet at 3500 rpm, combined net torque should fall somewhere between that 273 figure and the BlueTec's 400 pound-feet. The Hybrid uses the same 7-speed automatic transmission, with the same gear ratios, as the E350, but a more economy-oriented 2.23:1 (vs. 3.07:1) final drive.

Mercedes-Benz claims a 0-60 mph time for the E400 Hybrid of 7.2 seconds, which is hardly slow, and the same 130 mph top speed as all of the other E350 models. As with other hybrids, the engine shuts off when stopped in traffic, and electric-only maneuvering is available at parking-lot speed. The battery is a lithium-ion unit, using the same chemistry as the batteries in high-end plug-in electrics such as the Tesla Model S. But EPA-estimated fuel economy is still just 24/30 mpg city/highway. If you drive a lot in city traffic, the Hybrid could save you some gas money. But if highway mileage is what you need, the BlueTec diesel is probably a better choice.

The E-Class offers a nice balance of comfortable ride and good handling response, even in the Luxury models, which put a bit more emphasis on the ride. All E-Class variants have a variable damping system that changes the rebound rate of the shock absorbers according to conditions. This allows a softer, quieter ride on smoother roads, but retains full shock damping through dips, or for spirited driving on twisting two-lanes.

The E-Class brakes are world-class, with the latest electronic controls and built-in automatic braking with the Distronic radar-controlled cruise option. These brakes are consistently powerful at the wheels, progressive and reassuring at the pedal, and they always come back, no matter how hot they may get in a spirited drive.

The 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system is a great choice for buyers in northern climates, especially considering rear-wheel drive is the other option. The 4MATIC system is rear-biased in normal driving conditions, sending 55 percent of the power to the rear. When the system detects slip, it can send up to 70 percent of the power to either axle. It's a light, compact system that is integrated into the transmission and it doesn't cost too much in terms of fuel economy.

Mercedes demonstrated its 4MATIC system with a winter drive in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The street drive was held on a snowy day and 4MATIC was up to the challenge, delivering sure-footed traction even on fresh snow. The event also included drives on a special snow track, which the E350 4MATIC handled quite well, too. Mercedes had its whole 4MATIC car lineup there, and the E-Class dealt with the ruts of the deteriorating track better than anything other than the ultra-luxury S-Class. Yes, we drove S-Classes on a rutted snow track.

There are some minor differences among the various body styles. The sedan and coupe handle and ride very much the same, and the wagon is similar, but it feels bigger. The E-Class Cabriolet isn't quite as solid or nimble. Minor cowl shake can be felt over bumps and the vehicle doesn't rotate through turns or respond to steering inputs quite as quickly as the other models.

The Cabriolet is also loaded with features to extend open motoring throughout the year. One is AIRSCARF, which uses neck-level heating vents under the headrests. Another is a device called AIRCAP: an aerodynamic deflector mounted at the top of the windshield.

AIRCAP contains 211 separate parts with 70 patents, and it can be raised roughly 2.5 inches at the driver's discretion to redirect airflow over the top of the E-Class Cabriolet's open cabin. The point? AIRCAP virtually eliminates buffeting (not to mention wind noise) for front-seat passengers when the convertible top is lowered. It reduces buffeting for rear-seat passengers to levels comparable to that experienced by front-seat passengers in other four-place convertibles, according to Mercedes. And it does so without the drawbacks associated with more familiar, screen-type wind blockers raised behind the front seats: reduced visibility, and elimination of rear-seat passenger space. Unfortunately, it works best with the side windows up, which just looks goofy.

There's at least a slight payback with AIRCAP. When the airfoil is raised, the E-Class Cabriolet's roof-open drag coefficient rises from 0.33 to 0.38, and that could have a measurable effect on fuel economy. Nonetheless, AIRCAP works as billed, and allows the quietest, buffeting-free open motoring we've experienced.

The suspension in the E550 Cabriolet we drove might be too firm for some, though; over patchy freeway roads you can feel the jolts, as if the car is trying to defeat the bumps rather than absorb them.

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